Youngkin will rescind school mask mandate order but state law may complicate local policy changes

Virginia Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin has pledged to rescind the public health order that requires public and private school students to wear masks after he is sworn in on Saturday. However, lawmakers are split on what that will mean for individual school districts that want to do away with local mandates.

Regardless of the new governor’s actions, Governor Ralph Northam’s office claims school boards that end mask mandates will be in violation of a state law passed last year by the General Assembly, leaving them vulnerable to lawsuits. Republicans disagree and at least one senator plans to ask the new attorney general to weigh in.

When Northam moved to reinstate school mask mandates in line with changing federal guidance last summer, he initially cited a bipartisan law requiring schools to offer full-time, in-person learning with limited exceptions. That law also says schools should adhere, “to the maximum extent practicable,” to any currently applicable mitigation strategies outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Northam argued this included universal masking but later clarified the policy using a public health order when several localities refused to change their rules.

“The law is very clear, so school districts that choose not to follow it open themselves to liability,” Northam’s Spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said on Thursday.

Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, who is also a high school teacher, agrees. He said lawsuits would likely come from parents or interest groups, rather than the new Republican-led state government.

“Localities face lawsuits and I think many of them are not going to want that because that’s inevitable. Kids are going to get sick,” VanValkenburg said.

VanValkenburg has concerns about lifting mask mandates at a time when coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are reaching record highs.

“We are in the middle of the omicron variant spreading through schools. We are already seeing staff shortages. We are already seeing large sections of the student body out with positive cases,” VanValkenburg said.

Physician and state Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, who sponsored the bill, sees things differently.

“I don’t tell my patients what to do in making medical decisions. I inform them, I give them the information they need to decide and I respect their decision,” Dunnavant said.

The senator said she plans to revisit the in-person learning bill in the 2022 session. Dunnavant said, in conjunction with Governor-elect Youngkin, she will try to make it permanent. Right now, it’s set to expire on Aug. 1, 2022.

Dunnavant doesn’t believe the current language requires schools to follow CDC guidelines for universal masking and said it would be very hard for parents to successfully sue school boards due to sovereign immunity.

“There is no mandate in there and I believe we are going to hear that from the attorney general and having the attorney general weigh in on that will redirect the power to the localities to make the decision without a threat of being sued by somebody,” said Dunnavant.

Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares declined to comment on Thursday. He said he has yet to speak to Dunnavant on this issue.

Outgoing Attorney General Mark Herring’s office also declined to weigh in.

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